Packaging – a key marketing tool in the food industry

10-07-2015 Pecan caramel shortbread cakes
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Having burst onto the scene in the 90s, food design aims to enhance product appeal through its appearance.

In France, the art of attractive packaging design is flourishing. In export markets, manufacturers are tailoring their offer to local markets while focusing on authenticity as an important feature.

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When it comes to packaging, France does it well and a lot; according to the Ministry of Finance, Economy, France’s packaging industry employs more than 100,000 people. The industry works closely with the food sector and in fact food packaging plays an essential role in food safety, product reliability but also in marketing, which is the primary role of packaging. Before a product is launched on the market, the packaging aspect is subject to scrupulous attention as it is a major influence on consumer buying decisions. This aspect of packaging has reached even greater heights in the food industry as the competitive landscape becomes increasingly fierce. In order to stand out, packaging designers are becoming more and more inventive. And with just cause, as the field of design holds enormous potential for manufacturers wishing to add value to their products in such saturated market conditions. It is a lucrative sector, since food products are the most frequently purchased consumer goods and demand continues to rise throughout the world.

So what is food design? “While design in the realm of food challenges function, usage and value, it is evolving as a discipline as a direct response to the consumer’s need for change and to new expectations including status, experience, health benefits, surprise, sensorial experience and distraction” as highlighted in a research study by Celine Gallen and Pantin-Sohier (1), published in the Revue Gestion magazine. With effective packaging, the appeal of a product can multiply tenfold in a matter of seconds. Shape, colour and even typeface are all important purchasing cues depending on the individual consumer. The challenge for manufacturers is to bring congruence to the multi-sensorial appeal of products. In layman’s terms “This means consistently and simultaneously activating several senses” explains Celine Gallen, professor and researcher of marketing and food behaviour at the IEMN-IAE Institute in Nantes. She provides a specific example: “Packaging for small packs of Vichy pastilles tablets has a chalky texture. As you touch the product, it echoes the texture of the tablet and appeals to several senses at once. We therefore refer to congruence when there is a certain relevance to the consumer.”

France is certainly not falling short in food design expertise. Nantes Design School is a prime example, having recently launched a “Design Lab” devoted to new food trends, with the aim of training future designers to reconcile the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s consumer. Here, students are taught to meet the expectations of the French food industry, which has clearly woken up to changing consumer behaviour and is keen to innovate.


French Packaging in the midst of radical change

The French packaging landscape is gradually undergoing modernisation. More classic design featuring the product on the packaging is being overtaken by more innovative initiatives. Various trends are starting to emerge. “We are gradually seeing art on packaging. It’s only the beginning, but it increases the packaging’s aesthetic appeal. Vintage is also very much on trend. It brings an authentic feel to the product without neglecting taste.” comments Celine Gallen.

Big brands such as Danone, Fleury-Michon and Sodebo have led the way by appointing in-house designers rather than looking to outside specialised agencies, with projects taking on new meaning as a result. “It brings consistency”, points out Celine Gallen, who explains how food design is undergoing a kind of transformation. “Companies are increasingly interested in the way in which French consumers consume their products. How they use them and even transport them…and how to meet the challenge of usage patterns differing among consumer audiences.” While aesthetics remain a key focus, an eco-friendly approach is at the heart of new design since “the consumer is very waste-conscious. Companies are steering away from over-packaging and wasting space”. We are also seeing less information printed on packaging, and also the use of new materials such as wood, brown paper and cardboard. Finally, 21st century packaging tells a story. Take Bouay wine company for example, who featured a series of vine-grower portraits on bottles with different captions, such as: I learnt about vines and wine on my Grandfather’s lap….He passed on a love of the earth, listening to nature and all the love and attention I give my vines day in day out. And these wines have reached shelves around the world.

The importance of authenticity in international markets

The wine bottles in question will barely change for exports markets. Only the caption will be translated, and the rest remains identical. And here lies the speciality of French packaging abroad: its sheer Frenchness. Consumers of French foods around the world love their products for their authenticity, “terroir” and sophistication. French manufacturers and artisans alike who export their produce place great importance on preserving France’s image through the use of symbolism. From the French flag to “Made in France” highlighted on packaging, the Eiffel Tower to the French beret, these are all symbols that foreign consumers love to see on packaging. Parisian brand “Chocolat des Francais” has recently taken the world by storm with its vibrantly branded chocolate bars. As a small company, it is intent on reconciling “great looks and great taste” or “le beau et le bon” as flagged on its website. Its red, white and blue packaging featuring designs by French artists portrays an array of classic French symbols, including a frog, the Eiffel Tower, “Paris” emblazoned across the whole of the bar and even a French poodle. This modern twist on authentic values is a sure recipe for success, as proven by the many positive reactions on social networks from around the world.

And yet, in a bid to pinpoint usage patterns among foreign customers, French companies have tailored their approach and innovations to each market. “In Japan, there is a leaning in packaging design towards the more streamlined use of either black or white, or monochrome even, so the emphasis is on style and sophistication, or at the completely opposite end of the spectrum, you have typical Japanese “kawaii” cuteness, where pastel shades and cute features dominate (hearts, rainbows and flowers etc.)” remarks Celine Gallon. This probably explains why we see thousands of Japanese celebrating the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau every year by opening wine bottles with their typically multi-coloured labels. A real triumph for France, symbolising the versatility of French designers, to such an extent that it is not uncommon to find the same labels in French supermarkets.

In Anglo-Saxon countries, the emphasis lies firmly on practicality. Explorations in the sociology of food in the United States, and similarly in Great Britain, show that eating is a more accelerated process than in other countries, notably revealed in the fast-food phenomenon. Practicality takes precedence at the expense of the social aspect of sitting down around a table to enjoy a traditional meal. And with this in mind, many French vine growers have abandoned the traditional cork in favour of the screwtop. While perceived through suspicious eyes in France, the land of wine, this revolution has nevertheless paved the way to selling millions of bottles in export markets. Food for thought for new French exporters.


Sources: Gestion international revue. Pourquoi et comment innover par le design management?

Lecons de l’industrie agroalimentaire Celine Gallen & Gaelle Pantin-Sohier